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State Medical Societies Team Up To Condemn Marijuana Legalization Efforts Amid COVID

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A coalition of state medical societies has issued a joint statement criticizing efforts to legalize marijuana.

The medical societies of Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania said on Friday that while they appreciate the economic challenges that states have faced as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, they’re urging against legalization as a means of addressing the issue.

“Legalization continues to present serious public health concerns,” they argued. “Legalization continues to be considered across many states.”

They pointed specifically to the adult-use legalization referendum that New Jersey voters will decide on during Tuesday’s election and recent statements from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who recently signaled he will again include the policy change in his annual budget proposal next year.

“We appreciate the enormous challenges state policymakers face to address burgeoning budget deficits, but we strongly believe that further detailed research must be undertaken and assessed regarding the effects legalization of cannabis will have on important public health markers, such as emergency department visits and hospitalizations, impaired driving arrests, and the prevalence of psychiatric and addiction disorders,” the medical societies’ statement says.

The coalition also claimed that federal data shows “despite best efforts of states to limit the purchase of legal marijuana to adults, it has also led to a troubling increase in youth use,” citing an earlier National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) states report.

But while the statement asserts that cannabis consumption “by youth aged 12-17 is up in ‘legal’ states while declining in non-legal states,” the groups seem to be generally observing that marijuana use has historically been higher in states that have legalized, even before the policy change was enacted. In fact, a recent NSDUH report found mixed trends in legal and non-legal states, with some past month use data points for the age group declining and others increasing slightly.

Overall, reports of past-month cannabis use among those 12-17 remained stable from 2017 to 2018, the federally funded survey found—and they’re significantly lower than in the years prior to when the first states began legalizing for adult use.

Prior studies have also found that fewer adolescents in the largest metropolitan county in Washington state reported past-month cannabis consumption following legalization. And in California, cannabis consumption among junior high and high school students similarly fell post-legalization.

“We are very concerned that the long-term public health costs associated with hospitalizations and treatment for psychiatric/addictive disorders could significantly outweigh any revenues that these states anticipate would be received from the legalization of cannabis,” the medical societies said.

Of course, the economic benefits of tax revenue generated from cannabis sales is only one reason that policymakers have pursued legalization. In both New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, for example, the governors have stressed that the reform is a necessary move to promote social equity and right the wrongs of the drug war.

“We’ll build an industry, it would be a revenue-generator,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said in an interview about the state’s legalization referendum last week. “I think at first it would be modest, but ultimately will grow, I think, into several hundred million dollars in the state budget. Along with social justice, that’s a pretty good, winning combination.”

Cuomo similarly said last month that there “are a lot of reasons to get [legalization] done, but one of the benefits is it also brings in revenue.”

“There’s much more that needs to be done to reverse the decades of injustice, and we need to start by decriminalizing cannabis and legalizing it for adult use,” Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said around the same time. “The majority of Pennsylvanians support legalizing cannabis for adult use, and it’s a needed step toward restorative justice.”

But the medical societies did not touch on those components of reform. They focused largely on the COVID-19 crisis and said the public health emergency underscores the need to reject legalization.

“We are in the midst of a world-wide pandemic and we already know that smoking or vaping marijuana can increase patient risk for more severe complications from COVID-19,” they said. “Additionally, there are concerns about the secondary effects on adults and young people from COVID-19 regarding the increased rates of addiction due to the stress of isolation, boredom and decreased access to recovery resources.”

“The cost to the public health system from cannabis use will likely far outweigh any revenues that states secure by legalizing marijuana,” the statement continues. “We must proceed cautiously and pay close attention to the public health impacts in states where legalization has occurred.”

Beyond New Jersey, four other states will be voting on some form of cannabis legalization on Tuesday: Arizona (recreational), Mississippi (medical), Montana (recreational) and South Dakota (medical and recreational).

The Mississippi State Medical Association and American Medical Association have been circulating a sample ballot that instructs voters on how to reject the activist-led medical cannabis measure in that state.

While the state medical societies are taking a strong stance against legalization, the American Society of Addiction Medicine—which has historically resisted marijuana reform efforts and aligned itself with prohibitionists—recently adopted a new policy position in favor of protecting people who use and sell cannabis in compliance with state laws from being punished by the federal government.

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Photo by Sam Doucette on Unsplash.

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